In just 30 minutes of Eastenders last night (BBC1 and RTE1) there was one suspected murder, one not very successful visit from the social worker, one tense inspection by the planning department, one assault on a planner, one attempted bribe of a planner, one man with a black eye, one death threat, one accusation of arson, one account of a suicide and two shouting matches.
If you were watching on RTE1, there was also one advertising break, which allowed you to pick yourself up off the couch, dust yourself off and have a stiff brandy to help you to cope with all the misery. Watching Eastenders was never a barrel of laughs, but these days it’s positively grim, a relentless deluge of doom and disaster.
Coronation Street, its main soap rival, has its fair share of misery and disaster too (its male characters are showing a worrying tendency currently towards locking up their women folk), but it leavens the drama with moments of great humour.
It also has an important sense of continuity. If you were to it for the first time in 10 years, you’d certainly ask yourself “who are all these new characters?”, but you’d also recognise some familiar faces – Corrie treasures its veterans.
Last night on Eastenders, however, I didn’t recognise a single face. They’ve retained a few characters from the olden days – Dot Cotton, Ian Beale, Pat Butcher – but they weren’t around last night. Those who are left are an unimpressive bunch – personality free depressives played by average actors who don’t have the ability to turn the melodrama into something compelling.
It’s hard to know why anybody would watch. Perhaps the unrelenting misery works in an economic recession when people can tune in to see characters even more miserable than they are. There was one attempt at a joke last night, but it felt like a self-conscious response to the criticism that there are no laughs in Eastenders.
What’s seldom is wonderful, so the joke is worth retelling. After one of the characters uses the phrase “sic transit gloria mundi” (very loosely translated as “nothing lasts forever”), another says: “I was sick in a Transit once. I was with a girl called Gloria at the time and funnily enough it was on a Monday”.
It’s hardly a showstopper and signs are that viewers aren’t as sure of Eastenders as they once were. Certainly on RTE it has the ratings socks beaten off it every week by Fair City.
In the week ending June 19 for example, the most watched Far City had 534,000 viewers. The equivalent Eastenders was watched by just 387,000 people, fewer than tuned in that week to Saturday Night With Miriam, both Prime Times, the Frontline and The Big Money Game.
Fair City has the advantage of being homegrown, of course, but its other man advantage over Eastenders is that it doesn’t attempt to wrap the viewer in a blanket of bile and bitterness. Rather than just tell jokes, it attempts to generate humour through the characters.
Last night’s episode featured a young character called Mark who has got into terrible trouble with a gang called the Bishops.
Perhaps this is an attempt at cutting social satire by the writers; more likely it’s just a coincidence that the storyline emerged as Ireland’s bishops were being criticised for letting down the country’s youth.
I’ve been dipping in and out of the story over the last few weeks and it’s been a decent effort at showing show how an essentially decent character can have his life ruined by falling in with the wrong crowd.
Some people might argue that that’s what happened to Amy Winehouse, but she played host to enough personal demons to destroy her life all by herself.
TV3, never slow to profit from other people’s misery, did a quick juggle with its schedule to show Amy Winehouse: A Family Heartbreak, an account of the attempts by the singer’s father Mitch to come to terms with his daughter’s addiction.
Watching Senna, the recent documentary on the former Formula One champion who was killed during a race, you wondered to yourself repeatedly why all the obvious things weren’t done to prevent the impending tragedy.
By contrast, A Family Heartbreak was filled with a sense that Winehouse’s death was unavoidable.
Like many parents in similar situations, her father, a thoroughly decent human being by the looks of things, didn’t have a clue what to do to help or save her.
In one scene, as he mused on the biggest celebrity death in the last few years, he said, almost to himself: “If it could happen to Michael Jackson…” The rest of the thought was left unspoken.
This was real life misery, to which no soap opera could ever do justice.